By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – Whether it’s homelessness or hopelessness that causes a student to fall through the cracks, school social workers fill in the gaps.
Recently, the Wisconsin School Social Workers Association named Melanie Brick the State School Social Worker of the Year.
Brick is the Unified School District of De Pere’s sole social worker.
She was honored at a ceremony held recently in Wisconsin Dells.
So what does a school social worker do?
Pretty much anything that’s needed.
“We remove barriers for students to attend and fully engage in school,” Brick said. “That could be anything from homelessness to not having transportation to get to school, to not having school supplies or the right learning environment or the right learning tools at home. We might be arranging dental care for kids, or arranging counseling for kids – anything they would need to help them to be able to function the best they can.”
Although they often deal in the realm of family relationships and psychosocial issues, school social workers don’t take the place of counselors, but work with them.
“There are counselors in each building who meet the day-to-day needs of students, but when those needs exceed what the counselors can provide, such as needing more regular counseling or more intensive mental health services, psychiatric or mental health evaluation, then I get involved,” Brick said. “We work in collaboration with each other, very closely.”
Superintendent Ben Villarruel said many of Brick’s colleagues contributed to her award nomination.
“Melanie has touched the lives of our students, families, staff and community in more ways than we can count,” he said. “Whether it’s one-on-one student support, connecting families in need with other community resources, leading or contributing to mental wellness initiatives in the area – she does it all.”
District parent Melissa Olson agreed.
“From the time my daughter was in grade school to now when she’s in high school, Melanie has been a safe, calming presence,” she said. “Both my daughter and I can trust that she’ll be there to help us through whatever is happening in our lives, and if we need additional support she gets us connected to the right people.”
In 2018, Brick, along with Director of Pupil Services Jerry Nicholson and other staff, were successful in obtaining a $74,000 grant to support district-wide mental wellness initiatives from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
She has been serving as a school social worker for 21 years, the last six in De Pere.
Brick earned her master’s degree in social work at UW-Milwaukee and her undergraduate degree at UW-Green Bay.
Brick has been instrumental in collaborating with other local school districts and agencies to advocate and raise funds for school-based mental health and wellness programs.
She has seen how the Utah-based peer-to-peer suicide prevention program known as the Hope Squad has evolved over the past year, starting with Foxview Intermediate School in the district and spreading to the middle school and high school.
It’s being implemented, thanks to the help of some local business owners, in numerous public and parochial schools on both sides of the river, Brick said.
“Hope Squad teaches students to be the eyes and ears of the school and what to watch for when students are struggling, what to look for and what to do if someone does need help and how to reach out for help,” she said.
Hope Squad members are trained in what’s known colloquially as Q-P-R, or question, persuade and refer: Question your friend, persuade him or her to get help, or refer them to an adult who will be able to help them.
She said kids are more likely to tell their friends they’re struggling or depressed than telling their parents.
“We want the kids to have the tools that they need because kids aren’t coming to their teachers and telling them they want to die, they are telling their friends,” Brick said.